Right away I want to say that I understand that mental health and devastating events can kill our creativity, which puts a lot of pressure on us when creativity pays our bills. Draw with Jazza recently published a great video titled Fighting Burnout and Creative Block in which he discusses his own struggles with a difficult bout of creative block and what he did to overcome it. It is important to take care of our physical and mental health, which may require that we take a leave from work or seek help from loved ones or a therapist. Serious burnout is often the result of external factors and it is not a reflection of our work ethic or passion for our work.
All that being said, many people throw around the term “creative block” to describe a simple lack of motivation. In this scenario, “creative block” is an excuse for a lack of effort. If this is something that you do, it may be hard to acknowledge at first. Yes, there are days where it feels like you have absolutely no good ideas and it feels impossible to get a single drawing done. Maybe you’re feeling down or foggy, which makes brainstorming difficult. However, these are all personal barriers; states of mind that we are entirely capable of overcoming. There is nothing actually keeping you from putting pencil to paper. There are definitely days where ideas are easier to come by than others, but the first step to conquering creative block is to simply sit down and work. If you’re someone who wants to do your art or craft for a living, then you have to start treating it like a job, which means working whether you want to or not. In this edition of “Pursuit of Illustration”, I will discuss a few simple things we can add to our creative process to help with brainstorming, staying on task, and finding inspiration.
Practice preliminary work to boost creativity.
The first thing you can do, whether you’re an illustrator or a craftsperson, is grab a pencil and do some brainstorming sketches. No ideas coming to mind? Just keep sketching. Draw the objects around you, find a picture online, or use an app like What To Draw to come up with something. Nothing looks good? Oh well, sketches don’t need to look nice. Sketches are for practice and brainstorming, which are both extremely important no matter where you are in your career. Even if all you did all day was sketching, at least you worked towards improving your skills and generating some concepts to explore later.
Let’s say that you had some success with sketching and you have an idea that you would like to turn into a complete illustration, but you’re feeling a little intimidated. You’re not sure where to begin, or you’re having difficulty imagining the end product. Well, that’s the purpose of thumbnail sketches. Thumbnail sketches are small, normally only an inch or two wide. These are done very quickly without any edits. If you don’t like how one turned out, do another one. These mini sketches are great for planning the perspective, colour, and overall layout of your illustration. I try to do at least half a dozen thumbnail sketches before proceeding with any of my work. Continue working on your thumbnails until you feel that you have some direction and can move forward with confidence.
Brainstorming sketches and thumbnail sketches are two great preliminary exercises you can use to get those creative juices flowing! These tactics may work great for the days where you’re in a bit of a creative funk, but what about the really bad days? If you find yourself struggling to create a finished product for days on end, with or without sketching, you may need to look at the bigger picture. There are small things we can do to reinvigorate our minds or capture a spontaneous idea before it is lost.
Take notes to stay on track and capture spontaneous thoughts.
A notebook or an app like Google Keep plays a huge role in my ability to stay on task and remember the thoughts I have throughout the day. Creativity is often spontaneous. Great ideas arrive suddenly but can be gone again just as fast. If you’re armed with a notebook or your cell phone, then you can quickly jot down your brilliant thoughts as they come to you. I also create a to-do list every day from Monday to Saturday to help me stay on track, and the tasks I put on this list are achievable. Instead of making myself work for thirty minutes at a time on eight different projects throughout the day, I normally aim for only a couple high priority tasks and then I add smaller jobs if I have the time. This way I am not spreading myself too thin, and I can put greater focus into the more important tasks without feeling overwhelmed.
Find inspiration in the work of others.
Exploring the works of other illustrators can be a great way to get some inspiration. When I am feeling a little low on creative spark, I often scroll through my Instagram feed and see what the artists I follow have been working on. I recommend following users such as illustration_daily or illustration_best for a daily dose of inspiration. It also helps to look back at history and see what many influential artists did during their time. Although it is not necessarily evident in the style of my work, artists such as Vincent van Gogh have inspired me in many ways. Additionally, you may find it beneficial to explore other creative disciplines, such as photography, fashion, film, or even music. Broaden your horizons and discover something in other mediums from across the world, past or present. Use the perspective of other artists to create a paradigm shift in your own way of creative thinking.
It’s okay to step away and take a break.
Like I said before, a lack of motivation should not keep us from getting started on our work. However, if you’ve been working on a project nonstop and you feel like you have been pounding the pavement the entire time, then maybe it is time to take a break. There is nothing wrong with taking a step back from your work and coming back later once you have found some clarity. Have a snack, go for a walk, or take a nap. It’s okay to take the rest of the day off, assuming you’ve put in a substantial amount of work. People who do what they love for a living need to find a happy balance between self-discipline and leisure. Work and play go hand in hand more than people realize. If you’re all work all the time, then you will eventually suffer from mental fatigue. On the flipside, if you’re always dragging your feet and procrastinating important tasks, then you’re not getting anything done at all. Working is your time to be productive, and relaxing is your time to recharge. Use both wisely to fuel your imagination and avoid weariness.
The only thing that blocks your creativity is you.
The first step to becoming a professional illustrator is to sit down and do something productive. Remember, this could be something as simple as doing some preliminary sketches. This first step will get the ball rolling for the rest of your workday. You might love to draw, but if you’re going to turn it into your career than it must be treated as work. If you wake up and feel down and feel like you can’t get anything done, keep in mind that the way you are feeling may be out of line with reality. Make a pot of coffee or a cup of tea, sit down at your desk, grab a pencil and some paper or your notebook and get started. If you don’t put in the work now, how will you feel when you are older? That puts things into perspective for me. Don’t let “creative block” waste the time that you have now. Despite your frame of mind, you are the only barrier between yourself and your goals. Don’t let yourself down. Get to work!
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“Pursuit of Illustration” is a motivational and educational series for emerging illustrators and other practicing artists.
In my series, “Pursuit of Illustration”, I will share challenges I have faced, goals I have accomplished, and knowledge I have learned while working towards becoming a professional illustrator. I am still at the very humble beginning of this journey, but I hope that I can inspire young people and offer some helpful advice to my creative peers.
My pursuit of a career in illustration will be a long time in the making. I must master my work, find the right opportunities, thrive in a market with many competitors, and I can’t let myself get discouraged. For artists (especially emerging artists), we may have a lot of people in our lives who don’t understand our passion and don’t believe we can turn it into a means of making a living. However, what my work in arts administration has taught me is that anyone can make a living doing what they love and the opportunities are everywhere. In today’s world, you can turn any interest into a business with the right knowledge and tools.
Future topics may include recognizing your progress, designing booth displays, and marketing your work. Let this series be a source of information and encouragement that you can visit during your pursuit of doing what you love.